A living wage supports mental health

A living wage supports mental health

Originally published in the Star-Advertiser, February 17, 2019

Trisha M. Kajimura, M.P.H.
Executive Director of Mental Health America of Hawaii

A very wise mental health professional once told me that mental health is the ability to tolerate one’s own existence. That made an impression because of its simplicity. What does make one’s own existence tolerable? The answers are endless, but I am confident that it includes the ability to provide for one’s own basic needs while having time and emotional capacity left for things that we enjoy like family, friendships and recreation. Mental health is not just the absence of mental illness but also living without the toxic levels of stress caused by factors such as poverty, abuse and unpaid family caregiving.

If all of our waking hours are consumed by working for low wages, caring for others and going from family crisis to family crisis, we have little time for sleep, no time for health care and no time to figure out how to improve our situation. We are operating in survival mode and will not be participating in social services that can help us or spending quality time with our children.

In this financial scenario, it takes very little for families to go from financial hardship to disaster. A prolonged illness, an expensive car break-down, a rent increase — any of these things can tip an individual or family earning less than a living wage into homelessness. Trying to achieve self-sufficiency with an income that falls short of what is needed to pay for the basics of food and shelter is virtually impossible.

It explains why nearly half of Hawaii’s population is either in poverty or teetering close to it. And once homeless, pulling oneself out of those desperate circumstances is much more difficult and resource-intensive. Inevitably, it affects mental health and well-being.

With all of the attention and resources being directed into helping people out of homelessness, we cannot lose sight of the opportunity to prevent homelessness. Affordable rental housing is crucial, but so are fair economic policies that allow people the dignity of earning a living wage.

A living wage means having the time and resources to go the doctor. It means being able to keep the lights on, get medication when it is needed, making sure the car registration fee is paid. It means being able to keep up with the rent and maybe even have the ability to pay for school excursions and participate in office potlucks without blowing our food budget.

With our high cost of living, a living wage will not allow for luxuries but it will help to keep people from going over the cliff. It will give people that bit of additional bandwidth that will allow them to plan ahead and work toward a better future.

A living wage is an investment that pays off.

Being able to cover our basic physiological and security needs is the basis for mental health. From that foundation, we can then invest in the variables that make life worth living — relationships, interests and engaging with the community. To enact a living wage is to invest in the mental and physical well-being of those who work hard to keep our economy going. It is an investment in the health of the community to which we all belong. It is also an expression of our responsibility to look out for each other.

Lawmakers can, with this one act, do so much to address the toll of poverty on individuals and the community. Paying people better will pay off for businesses who will reap the benefits of having consumers with a little more income to buy their goods and services. It will pay off for all of us as taxpayers. It will pay off for the state agencies that have to deal with the effects of homelessness on our streets. Yes, for all our sakes, let’s enact a living wage.

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